Thoughts on …

10/03/2019 - "Bearanoia"
John Bafford / longstride.net

There are different challenges that come up while being on a wilderness trek. The fear of bears is definitely one of them. This morning I read an interesting article about „bearanoia“ on pmags.com that tried to find reasons why people fear those animals while being out in the woods and mountains. 

I can’t hide that bears were my greatest fear, too, when I started hiking in areas where these animals might be around. And sometimes it still is my greatest fear, but then I have to remind myself that this is not reasonable. 

But where does the „bearanoia“ come from? 

First of all, who hasn’t thought at least once about Steven Spielberg’s „Jaws“ before plunging into the ocean surf? Though it is very unlikely to get eaten by a shark. However, movies and advertisements have a huge impact on people’s imaginations and ideas about something they don’t know much about. When bear spray is advertised with a gigantic grizzly bear that bares its teeth with saliva tripping from its muzzle, when in endless close-ups the almost fatal attack of a huge grizzly on Leonardo deCaprio in „The Revenant“ is shown, then the human primeval fear is stoked. All this supports the imagination of a bear being that massive animal that chases humans. These fears are coded in our DNA and saved us a million times from actually being attacked. But that goes back to ancient times when we lived as nomads and called caves our homes.

Also, nature gets more accessible for more and more people. Therefore encountering wild animals is becoming likely. The numbers of visitors to, for example, the US-American national parks skyrocketed the last years because the expansion of infrastructure makes access possible, and easy, and also guarantees a comfortable and affordable stay for people who would have been less likely to spend their holidays outdoors or somewhere close to outdoors. Many tourists are aware of nature and its vulnerability, but also many aren’t. Parks might appear as amusement parks, although rangers set up many programs to educate people about flora and fauna. People fear what they don’t know and what they’re not used to.

Knowledge heals and prevents fears, especially when these are rather irrational. Often people  get emotional and panic instead of staying calm and thinking rationally. Anyway, many more people enjoy the great outdoors nowadays — stats say that the market for sports, outdoor and recreational equipment grows about 9% each year. Also, hiking sees more and more enthusiasts, and even long distance hiking becomes more popular: the Pacific Crest Trail Association stats show that for 2018 about 5500 more permits for a thru hike were issued than only 5 years before. So, more people develop the urge to go outdoors and experience nature. But it does not mean that all these people are educated about behavior of wild animals and how to react when encountering one. They enter the backyards of their likely urban homes with the idea of beasts living in the woods and mountains and them only waiting for humans to mess with. 

Even though nature gets more accessible to bigger numbers of people, the gap between modern urban life and nature grows bigger and bigger. People are getting more alienated from the natural world.

With all the great technological development and the overall presence of the internet, we sometimes seem to lose our contact with nature. Wild animals, and specifically bears, are a symbol for the uncontrolled wild and also uncontrollable fears. These days I got the strong impression that people try to handle their unknown fears by reducing whatever risk to a minimum by planning ahead as much as possible, to reduce the unknown, by looking everything up and making plans for any possible turn things might take. We live in times when you can look up the weather for the next 7 days; check the water temperatures at certain beaches worldwide while still sitting at your desk; read about what other people think about a certain restaurant at a certain location and upon that decide to pay that place a visit or not; look at possible camp spots from above by using Google Earth; make sure that you won’t get lost on properly marked hiking trails by the use of GPS hiking apps for your phone; an additional GPS tracking device in the backpack; and maybe even by carrying an extra compass and paper maps. That might sound pessimistic, but modern people get more and more alienated from their natural outside world, forget about their abilities and don’t trust themselves and their instincts anymore. 

As uncontrollable nature itself is, it seems to be the ultimate (antipode) contrast to modern life with all its amenities and comfort.

But, there is no rational reason to fear: wild animals fear humans more than the other way round. They do everything to prevent any encounter and they’re more likely to run away and hide long before they actually cross paths with a human. Encounters are more likely surprising and definitely unintended, for example, when animals can’t sniff humans early enough to run away because the wind blows in the opposite direction, or when people accidentally get in between a mother bear and her cubs. 

But overall, I get the good impression that people are conscious about protecting nature and its wild animals. National parks in the USA, where it is likely to encounter those huge animals, have certain rules that should help to protect bears, such as storing food and all personal items that have an odor in a bear-proof canister. But not just that: also you’re told to cook at a different place than at your eventual camp spot and you’re supposed to leave no trace, meaning to pack out all garbage and leave no food behind. People might think that these rules are made to protect humans from bears, but it is actually the other way round. It is to protect bears from humans. Food and odors attract wild animals, and the more encounters there are, the more wild animals get used to the presence of humans in their habitat. That will eventually result in them loosing their fear of humans, which may mean they won’t keep their distance from people anymore. Those animals, that have lost the fear of humans, might have to be shot as they become a danger for people.

But how to prevent „bearanoia“? 

Educate yourself about the behavior and nature of bears, read about how to react when actually facing a situation with a bear. Be able to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear and where their habitat is. I have read people warning in social media against grizzly bears in Yosemite Valley! But hey, there are no grizzlies in Yosemite Valley, it is black bears and that makes a huge difference when encountering one of these animals.

When spotting a bear stay calm, don’t panic, also don’t scream in amazement, resist of approaching even further for taking better pictures, admire the fact that you are lucky enough to see one of those majestic wild animals and step back slowly and, if not noticed by the animal yet, silently.

Last but not least, don’t listen to those fear mongers at home. Of course, people will tell you to stay away from bears, watch out the bears, don’t get eaten by bears. That is what people associate with the wild outdoors. Go out, reconnect with nature. Wild animals are not as commonly encountered as people think. I call myself lucky to have seen 4 bears while hiking the 2650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Many hikers who have not been that lucky. The likeliness of spotting a bear is actually lower than a lot of people might expect. So enjoy being out there and don’t spend too much time worrying about getting eaten by a bear. 

Brown and cinnamon-coloured bear in Lassen Volcanic National Park.